Home Teaching What We Lose With the End of Affirmative Action (Opinion)

What We Lose With the End of Affirmative Action (Opinion)

by Staff

In 2013, I received the best news of my life. I was accepted to the University of Southern California and would become the first person in my family to attend college.

I received this welcome despite having an SAT score that paled in comparison to most of the university’s accepted students. Of the approximately 47,000 high school seniors that applied, only 9,304 were accepted. To be fair, I graduated at the top of my high school class, but nobody from my high school had been accepted to USC. The black box of college admissions left me wondering whether my Hispanic identity had given me a “plus” in the school’s evaluation process, rendering my suboptimal SAT score more acceptable so that they chose me over other students with a similar (or even slightly better) profile.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected affirmative action in admissions decisions at universities nationwide. Critics of the decision handed down by the court’s conservative justices have largely focused on the reduction in racial diversity, in and of itself, as the negative consequence of race-neutral policies within higher education.

My story reveals another, equally concerning cost: We may also fail—more often than we already do—to capture and develop the best talent our youth can offer.

I started high school the same month my family came out of homelessness. As a freshman, I never seriously considered college. My parents dropped out of elementary school to support their families, and my older brothers did the same after graduating from high school. I also heard very little from college recruiters—a common experience for students at public high schools in less-affluent areas.

But with an early interest in the sciences, I took introductory biology, chemistry, and physics. Advanced science courses were not at all or rarely offered in my high school. Yet, I decided to apply to college because I dreamed of becoming a doctor and, according to Google, I first needed a bachelor’s degree.

So, my parents, who always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, scrounged enough cash to help me purchase a copy of an SAT book about two weeks before my exam. Little did I know that better-resourced students typically study months in advance with the aid of dedicated SAT prep courses and private tutors. But even if I had known this, we wouldn’t have been able to afford these supports. Unsurprisingly, Black and Hispanic students like me end up scoring lower on the SAT than white and Asian applicants, who tend to have more resources, based on data from 2022.

Not only was my SAT score below average, my college essays—which the conservative justices contend can be used to evaluate a student’s experiences with race and ethnicity—were also poorly written. I received little advice; we had one guidance counselor in a high school of about 800 students and no access to coaching that could help me articulate my story. As the first person in my family to apply to college, I did not grasp the importance of having polished essays. The same is true for many other disadvantaged students.

Nonetheless, I started college at USC in 2013. To enroll in the chemistry class required for medical school, I was initially placed in a tutorial course for students with inadequate preparation. Many of us were Black or Hispanic freshmen.

Race matters. It matters because of these moments, and because considering it in admissions functions as a proxy for the untold, often invisible challenges that come with being a minority in America.

By the end of my sophomore year, I was selected as one of two students to teach organic chemistry to the rest of the pre-medical students. Students from all backgrounds attended the sessions I led, using problems I created to help them master the content.

When I applied to medical school in 2016, I had made enough friends, gained a few mentors, and received access to a counselor to guide me through the application process. I worked on my personal statement to medical schools for months and studied for the MCAT using a friend’s study plan. This time, I could proudly articulate my story, and my test score was no longer in the bottom quartile. It was in the 95th percentile.

I was accepted to Harvard Medical School in 2017. Since then, I’ve taken care of many patients. One patient, a young Latino man, was hospitalized with a gunshot wound. He told me about the incident, his daughter, and his unremitting pains. “Este es bueno, es familia” (“This one is good, he is family”), he told his mother when I walked into his room. When I first entered USC, I dreamed of moments like this that underpin data demonstrating better outcomes when clinicians and patients are of a similar race and when they speak the same language.

Race matters. It matters because of these moments, and because considering it in admissions functions as a proxy for the untold, often invisible challenges that come with being a minority in America. USC gave me a shot, partly because of my academic performance and extracurricular experiences but also because they saw the potential of a Hispanic student without the best essays and the highest test score.

As universities adapt their admissions processes in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, they must preserve the talent that comes with recruiting diverse candidates—talent that, especially at the high school level, can be incredibly difficult to discover without considering race.

One way of identifying and preserving such talent may entail stronger partnerships between higher education and public high schools in less-affluent areas. Such partnerships, which exist in some states, could promote college interest and readiness.

High schools could also foster interest in higher education by engaging alumni who can mentor students. Improving access to—and performance in—Advanced Placement courses, which are less likely to be offered in lower-income areas, could also help.

As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in her dissent, educational institutions cannot allow the decision to “delay the day that every American has an equal opportunity to thrive, regardless of race.” Education leaders must heed these words. Otherwise, they risk losing the untapped potential of America’s hidden talent—potential like mine.

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